How to be a Confessional Lutheran Pastor in America Today
May 16, 2007
By Pastor Rolf Preus
I am honored by your invitation to speak to you today. I am doubly honored by the fact that you have chosen to ask me to talk to you on this holy eve of Syttende Mai, also known as Norwegian Independence Day. It was thirty years ago as I was sitting at the feet of the preeminent spiritual gifts discovery facilitator of this institution – the Rev. Dr. David P. Scaer – that I discerned my own spiritual gift of interpreting signs. It was recently revealed to me that the date of our meeting together has a prophetic significance. It signifies that my separated Norwegian Lutheran brothers will, one day, be delivered, receive their independence from the Wauwatosa Gospel, and led back into the promised land of Waltherian confessionalism. Can I have an “Amen”?
My topic is: “How to be a Confessional Lutheran Pastor in America Today.” I was thrilled to be asked by this year’s graduating class of my alma mater to speak to you on a topic so close to my heart. I was disappointed to learn that I would not be permitted to speak on campus. But I have managed to cope with my disappointment. You see, the Ft. Wayne campus never did work its way into my affections as a special place in my heart. I grew up on the campus of the other seminary and it was in my childhood that I learned what a seminary should look like. Neo-Gothic architecture is a must. The Ft. Wayne campus has, for some reason, always reminded me of a Senior College. Besides, when I entered the institution from which you are graduating this week it was located in Springfield, Illinois. It was there that I was baptized into the theology of this institution and received my heart strangely warmed experience.
Now don’t you cold-hearted Lutherans start mocking me! I do have external proof. It’s on the wall of my study at First American Lutheran Church in Mayville, North Dakota. It is an award signed by Daniel Preus and John Wesley on April 28, 2000. I was the recipient of the Neo-Methodist of the Year Award, also known as the “Heart Strangely Warmed” Award. I submit to you, dear brothers, that what binds us alumni of CTS together is not any affection for campuses, classroom buildings, or even beautiful chapels with baptismal fonts in the front filled with water. It is rather an experience. I will share that experience with you today.
It was a baptism by immersion. At Springfield we were literally immersed in Lutheran theology. We called the cafeteria the soup. The soup was where we drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and talked theology. We loved to talk theology. Let me bring you back to the theological environment of those days. I began the seminary in Springfield in 1975. The Missouri Synod had just fought the Battle for the Bible. Seminex had recently been formed. Professor Marquart’s masterful analysis of the controversy, An Anatomy of an Explosion, had just been published. The Missouri Synod was in fellowship with the ALC. The ELCA didn’t exist. Neither did Lutheran Worship. Nobody had ever heard of the Church Growth Movement. The Charismatic Movement was at its height. While the conservatives had won the Battle for the Bible, the fight had taken its toll on the Missouri Synod as an institution. The Synod had just lost ninety percent of the faculty at its premier academic institution. The synodical consensus in doctrine had been shaken if not shattered. There was a theological vacuum and this institution arose to fill the void.
Nowadays the term “confessional Lutheran” has become saddled with church political overtones as if it signifies a faction within the political battles of the Missouri Synod. That’s too bad. It was different during the seventies. As you know, the Formula of Concord was written in 1577 and the Book of Concord was published in 1580. As Missouri was reeling from her recent civil war, the four hundredth anniversaries of these events drew attention to what would bind us together. There was a renewal of the confessional spirit in Missouri. The Lutheran dogmatic tradition was rediscovered as the great works of Martin Chemnitz were made available in English for the first time.
A new generation of pastors looked for their theological roots, not so much in Perry County or in St. Louis, but in the confessional, polemical, devotional, and dogmatic works of the Lutheran Church in the 16th and 17th centuries. They looked where Walther looked. Not so much interested in reestablishing a synodical consensus, they sought instead a confessional identity. And they were and are associated with Concordia Theological Seminary.
It was Fred Danker in his book, No Room in the Brotherhood, an autobiographical polemic against Jack Preus and Herman Otten, who used an expression describing the Missouri Synod that I have found particularly apt to describe just about any synod. He spoke of Missouri’s corporate ego. While it takes a bit of chutzpah for a representative of the faculty majority to speak of the ego of others, he did coin a useful expression. Synods aren’t simply the collection of churches, pastors of churches, theological institutions established to serve these churches and pastors, and other entities established to assist congregations and their pastors. Synods are also self-perpetuating bureaucracies. The ego of a bureaucracy must be protected.
So then, confessional Lutherans live in two churches at the same time. They live in the church that is identified by the marks of the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. This is the church that remains for us an article of faith. We can identify her marks but we cannot see the Communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, or the life everlasting. We cannot see the Holy Spirit who sanctifies her nor can we see her holiness. But she is there. She is the bride of Christ, the temple of the living God, the sheep of the Good Shepherd, the royal priesthood of saints. She is the pillar and ground of the truth for she has been led into all truth by the Spirit of truth who, through Christ’s apostles, has given to the Church the Holy Scriptures, which are in their every assertion and promise the unalloyed truth of God free from any error of any kind. We are called by God to serve her by preaching and teaching only the truth.
But we also live in synods that are governed to a large extent by constitutions, by-laws, policies, handbooks, and a permanent bureaucracy. A synodical bureaucrat at whatever level is responsible for maintaining the equilibrium of the institution as an institution. He cannot see the essence of the church anymore than a parish pastor or royal priest can see it. This is hidden. But the synodical structure is quite visible, measurable, and predictable. Conflict of any kind must be studiously avoided. Whether or not synodical conflict is grounded in doctrinal differences is beside the point. The point is that synodical conflict is bad for the synod as a visible and identifiable entity. Conflict is conflict and regardless of its source it is bad. It breeds all sorts of troubles, not the least of which is the drying up of steady funds required to keep the bureaucracy fed.
Insofar as a synod is church she must be identified by the marks of the church. To the extent that she cannot be so identified she isn’t church. What Danker identified as the corporate ego of the synod does not and cannot apply to the synod as church but to the synod as a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. There is no corporate ego of the church as church. She has no ego. Her identity is given her by Christ, her head. She lives alone by mercy. She is constantly confessing, returning to her baptism, and there being washed in the blood of the Lamb. She confesses her sins and she confesses her faith. Her perfection is always hidden underneath the foolishness of what is preached.
The synod as self-perpetuating bureaucracy is not a church. She doesn’t live alone by mercy. She doesn’t confess her sins. Indeed, she cannot. While not infallible in principle (this is unacceptable among Lutherans) she cannot afford to admit to error. The corporate ego must be protected at all costs. Once the bureaucracy admits error she loses both credibility and authority. The church’s authority rises out of her self-denial. From that comes the authority of Christ’s blood and God’s holy word. The authority of the bureaucracy comes from self-affirmation. All synods seek to raise awareness of their synod among the public. The Missouri Synod must protect her synodical logo from theft. The Wisconsin Synod invites all and sundry to come to the WELS. The ELS continues to celebrate “Our Great Heritage” even as she settles more firmly into the American Protestant culture.
The synod as self-perpetuating bureaucracy straightens out procedures, rules, and public synodical policy. All this must be made crystal clear. But she tends to obfuscate Christian doctrine. The reason is that she is not church but must be regarded as church. She cannot afford to permit truth to rule because truth by its very nature causes division. Conflict is precisely what threatens the synod as bureaucracy. But neither can she afford to deny the truth by which the church as church is identified for this would destroy any pretense she has to be church. What to do?
First she must subordinate the truth to the authority of the synod. Once the synod is in firm control of defining the truth she assumes an obligation to establish an acceptable official teaching to which most of the organization is willing to submit. This official teaching need not correspond to what is actually taught by anyone anywhere. That’s not its purpose. The purpose of an official position is to overcome doctrinal conflict by means of synthesizing the various conflicting theological positions into a theoretical consensus. After this theoretical consensus has been formulated, the Scriptures, the Confessions, the fathers, and existing official synodical statements are gathered together to support it. Then, the theoretical consensus having been achieved, the synod can lay claim to unity.
Now should you object to the latest manifestation of the official synodical position out of loyalty to a more permanent standard of truth you will be encouraged, urged, or threatened (depending on the synod to which you belong and the clarity with which your objection is stated) to acquiesce to what the group, through its adopted procedures, has covenanted together to say to say and to do. The synodical consensus secures the peace and wellbeing of the synod. You know the rules. They are for the benefit of us all. Besides, you agreed to them when you joined.
Within the Missouri Synod the synodical consensus is expressed by the CTCR. This is not to say that the CTCR has the authority to define doctrine to which others must submit. That’s not what it is for. Neither does it exist for the purpose of teaching anything to anyone. Its purpose is to set down in a neat and tidy fashion the acceptable boundaries within which the synod can live at peace with itself and thereby thrive numerically, financially, and in the esteem of itself and prospective members.
Can a confessional Lutheran submit to the authority of such an organization? Of course not! A confessional Lutheran confesses the truth regardless of the consequences. This both defines our present and projects us to the eschaton where we will stand with intrepid hearts before the judgment seat of Christ and confess the truth that He gave us to preach.
But we have another duty than the duty to speak God’s truth. We have another loyalty than our loyalty to the pure preaching of God’s word. We don’t preach just to preach or teach just to teach. We preach and we teach as undershepherds of the Good Shepherd. The flock placed under our care does not belong to us. It belongs to the One who bought the sheep with His own blood. Why did He do that? He loves them.
O wondrous Love, what hast Thou done!
The Father offers us His Son!
The Son, content, descendeth!
O Love, how strong thou art to save!
Thou beddest Him within the grave
Whose word the mountains rendeth.
“Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Simon says yes. Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” Love Jesus, love His sheep. We are called to feed the sheep and the lambs that belong to the One who in love gave up His life for them. We must love them, too. True love requires both prudence and courage.
It requires prudence. While we may bemoan the bureaucratization of the church, bureaucracies are a necessary evil for the simple reason that rules and regulations are required if things are to proceed in an orderly fashion. Should we choose simply to blast away at the weaknesses, corruption, or even errors of the synod to which we belong out of a devotion to high principles and pure doctrine we just might find that we have hurt the sheep God has called us to feed. Killing the patient in order to save him is not sound practice for the physician of the soul. We must distinguish between the church as church and the church as self-perpetuating bureaucracy. We must distinguish between the holy and the profane. But we cannot wrench the holy away from the profane. They are intertwined within the hearts of Christ’s sheep. When we are tempted to do a bit of idol smashing we need to remind ourselves that when idols are smashed people get hurt. Let God smash the idols in the hearts of His people. Our job is to preach and to teach God’s truth.
To show respect to the synod as self-perpetuating bureaucracy will do us no harm, as long as we do not submit to any other authority over our teaching and practice than the authority of God’s word. But God’s word isn’t floating out in space. The eternal is wedded to the transient and the indispensable evangelical substance is fixed within dispensable structures. Prudence is born in the humble admission that we cannot entirely disentangle God’s word from the various legalistic forms and structures that attach themselves to it. The problem is never with the forms and structures per se, but with the legalistic spirit by which they seek hegemony over God’s word. Yet we don’t learn the Bible apart from an ecclesiastical context with its various manmade structures and everything man touches becomes tainted by legalism, that is, by sin. It has never been any different. To combat legalism doesn’t require the destruction of every institution that serves it. Love for Christ’s sheep requires prudence.
It also requires courage. To take a stand on the truth of God’s word is easy to do when you are visiting with friends over a beer or pontificating on an email chat list. It is not so easy when those who appear to have your future in their hands make it clear to you that your future will better be served if you avoid taking a stand on a particular issue. The confessional Lutheran pastor is required to stand on God’s word in and out of season. He doesn’t choose the battle. He doesn’t choose the time. He doesn’t choose whether or not to be engaged. When God calls you into the office He has established in and for His church for the feeding of His sheep He calls you to fight for the sheep. Since God’s truth is the indispensable food for the sheep, any attempt to muzzle its proclamation is an attack on the sheep. If you love those whom God calls you to serve you will not fail to preach to them the entire truth of God’s word even when many of them don’t want to hear it.
A pastor is under authority. He is under the authority of the church. But he is not under the authority of a synod. He is not under the authority of the whim of the majority of the moment. He is under the authority of God’s word entrusted to the church. The Lutheran principle of Scripture Alone is indispensable for an understanding of that authority.
The church simply has no extra-biblical authority. If she is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets there can be no norm for preachers in addition to the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. So we confess in the Formula of Concord:
We pledge ourselves to the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments as the pure and clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated. (FC SD Rule and Norm par. 3)
This is how we Lutherans understand the authority of the church. If the Lutheran Confessions do not obtain their authority solely by being drawn from the Holy Scriptures and agreeing with them, they cannot be imposed by the church as a standard for the church’s pastors. But if the Lutheran Confessions agree with the Holy Scriptures because they are drawn from them and are a correct exhibition of biblical doctrine, then the church does right in requiring her ministers to subscribe unconditionally to the Confessions as a precondition for serving in the ministry of the word.
Confessional Lutheran pastors submit to the authority that God has given to the church. In matters pertaining to love, they submit to all sorts of arbitrary requirements, for that is what love does. Love submits. This has nothing to do with the Fourth Commandment, and once upon a time this was understood. The advisory nature of the synod’s relationship to the congregations that form it should rid us of any notion that pastors or congregations are to submit to synodical authority as children are to submit to the authority of their parents. It is the brotherly duty of all Christians to submit to one another in love, and it is as an expression of brotherly love that pastors submit to many extra-biblical requirements that do not militate against the truth.
But confessional Lutheran pastors submit to no other authority over their teaching than the authority of God’s word and this is precisely why the church must require an unconditional confessional subscription and why the ministers must give it. Our unconditional confessional subscription is our submission to the church’s authority. We are under orders. The office to which God calls us belongs to the church. This is why she must require of all office bearers an unconditional confessional subscription. It is her duty to require of her ministers submission to God’s truth in all that they teach. Only then are her ministers ministers of Christ.
The Confessions obtain their normative authority from the Bible. The Bible is the norm that norms. The Confessions are the norm that is normed. Since the Confessions have already been judged by the Bible and found to be in agreement with it, we may rely on the Confessions as a guide in our understanding of what the Bible teaches. To some this sounds a bit brazen, as if we are subjecting the Bible to an extra-biblical standard. But that’s not what we’re doing. We are subjecting ourselves – not the Bible – to legitimate ecclesiastical authority. Submitting to authority is good for preachers to do. We have no right to interpret the Bible any way we please. If we want to be confessional Lutheran pastors we must submit to the normative authority of the Lutheran Confessions. The Confessions tell us what the Bible teaches. If they didn’t, we’d have no business subscribing them.
The Confessions tell us what the Bible teaches. We do not rely on a catholic tradition with a capital “T” or a theological commission or a synodical consensus or an academic elite that knows lots of stuff we don’t know. But if the Confessions tell us what the Bible teaches, who tells us what the Confessions teach? Walther does! Well, then, who will tell us what Walther teaches? Francis Pieper or August Pieper? Let’s go with Francis. But then who speaks for him? And on and on it goes as the Confessional subscription gives way to a synodical tradition that is always evolving and becoming more and more refined to the point where the tradition has acquired a life of its own often disconnected from its original moorings. What is a confessional Lutheran to do?
Here we can learn from a professor of Concordia Theological Seminary that you brothers have chosen to honor by establishing the Kurt Marquart Fund for Theological Education in Haiti. I commend you for this. I am confident that this is what he would have wanted. He wasn’t much into titles, status, or honors. He loved Lutheran theology and he loved to teach it. That’s why we loved him. I recommend that you read everything he wrote. He was one of the finest theologians of his generation. I also recommend that you follow his example. Specifically, consider how Professor Marquart dealt with the theological tradition of the Missouri Synod as one of the Synod’s teachers.
He came to the United States from Australia in the wake of the Great Missouri Civil War. The synodical consensus had been shattered. The corporate ego had been wounded. Professor Marquart was called to teach. What did he do? He taught. He didn’t try to sooth the corporate ego of the institution or even to regain a lost consensus. He taught. While respecting the tradition of Missouri, he did not submit to it as if it were normative for his own teaching. He was one of the finest Walther scholars in the Missouri Synod. But he did not force Walther to conform to the ever evolving tradition. He read Walther with great sympathy and respect. He chose to become his student. As Walther’s student, he was able to teach us.
I have a rather unique perspective on Professor Marquart for a number of reasons. I would like to share with you something you may not know that to me and my family is very precious, indeed. When my father had been removed as president and professor of CTS by means of a forced retirement and then later suspended from the synod on account of actions he took to defend his call, Professor Marquart served as his theological advisor. I read the briefs he wrote in that capacity as my father’s case went through the adjudication process that the Missouri Synod had in those days. Rarely have I read such sound biblical theology. Professor Marquart consistently appealed to what was pure, right, holy, and just. Void of any acrimony or bombast, he argued as a confessional Lutheran theologian, appealing to the authority of God’s word. He did so in defense of a brother. The clarity and persuasiveness of his arguments in those briefs was remarkable.
He honored my father. He honored the fathers. He honored Walther, not because of his status as a Missouri Synod icon, but because Walther was Marquart’s father in the faith and God teaches us to honor our fathers and to imitate them. Others who saw the breakdown of Missouri’s corporate identity retreated into a synodical triumphalism. Others tried to leap past Walther to find an allegedly more pure strand of confessionalism than what he bequeathed to us. Still others, in a quixotic quest for authentic confessionalism leaped right back into Eastern Orthodoxy and are now gone from us. Professor Marquart honored his fathers. So we honor him.
Professor Marquart showed respect to the synod as a self-perpetuating bureaucracy out of a love for his brothers. But the authority he acknowledged was the authority of God’s word. In preserving for us the teaching of Walther without all of the later accretions that were imposed upon him, Marquart taught us all how to do theology. A confessional Lutheran does not trash the tradition within which he serves. He respects those who have won the affections of the people, but he refuses to be bound by the tradition. In many ways he helped to return conservatives to a more confessional and less synodical theological orientation. A confessional Lutheran is bound by written and immovable texts, not by changing traditions, whether of the early church, the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, or the Synodical Conference. Professor Marquart was wonderfully eclectic. He made us aware of the great contributions of Herman Sasse, was not afraid to quote Malcolm Muggeridge, and taught us Christian apologetics as only a confessional Lutheran can do. Who else but Professor Marquart would refer to evolution as a metaphysical dogma?
When I was a member of the ELS, I was privileged to teach several times at St. Sophia Theological Seminary in Ternopil’, Ukraine. One of the students in my first class – who is now the Bishop of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church – is a loyal Ukrainian nationalist who wanted to keep all Russian influence out of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church. Russian was the language of the oppressor. One day he and I were talking about Professor Marquart who had lectured at the seminary the previous year. Slavic waxed eloquent on what a wonderful teacher he was. I asked him: In what language did Professor Marquart lecture? He replied that he lectured in Russian. Oh, I commented, I thought you didn’t like Russian. Ah, he replied, but it was the royal Russian! Personally, I wouldn’t know the royal Russian from the Communist Russian, but Slavic did.
I am not suggesting that God has given us all the same gifts and Professor Marquart was one of a kind. But we can learn from his example how to speak the truth in love.
When I was at the seminary I had Dr. Henry Eggold for Homiletics and Pastoral Practice. Eggold was an excellent homiletician. First, he taught us that we didn’t know how to preach. Then he taught us how to preach. He was a true Lutheran, rightly dividing the word of truth. In Pastoral Practice, Dr. Eggold would be rambling on about what the parish was like, what people are like, the kinds of difficulties a pastor encounters in the parish, and then he’d stop talking, look at us, and say: “Ya just gotta love ’em.” I don’t know how many times he said that. He said it enough for it to sink in. That’s what pastoral practice is all about.
Sheep are not wolves. They are sheep. You are their servant. True, you take orders from Jesus. But Jesus serves. This is how He ransomed us from death and hell. He serves. We joke about little kids calling the pastor Jesus. One kid used to call me Jesus Preus. This sort of thing happens a lot when you grow a beard. Now I don’t want to get into all this iconic business, but the fact is that the portrayal of Jesus provided by the pastor is going to make a difference. You represent Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. You’re not a CEO. You’re not a coach. You’re not some kind of professional enabler of good deeds. You are a minister of Jesus Christ, called by God Himself to preach the gospel by which those entrusted to your care are forgiven of all their sins, delivered from death and the devil, and given eternal life. This is service. It is work. You serve them with God’s word. You don’t take the credit or the blame for what God says in His word or does with His word. If you are loved for the gospel you preach, thank God. If you are hated for the gospel you preach, thank God.
A confessional Lutheran pastor must be a stubborn man. When you ascend the pulpit on a Sunday morning you stubbornly persist in preaching the gospel week after week after week. You can’t convert a soul. But God can. And He does. He does it where and when He pleases in those who hear the gospel that you preach. So you preach it. You preach the law, not just in the abstract, but concretely. Simply informing people of the doctrine of original sin is not preaching the law. God condemns us on the inside by coming at us from the outside. What is this you have done? From exposing the doing God exposes the interior wickedness of the one who did it. Bad law preaching is endemic in the church these days. It’s your duty to preach the law as a divinely given and unchangeable standard of conduct and to do so with great specificity.
It is your duty to preach the gospel. You must talk about Jesus or you aren’t preaching the gospel. You talk about who He is, what He has done, why He has done it, and what God has to say to you about you on account of it. You preach the incarnation, the two natures in Christ, the vicarious atonement, the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the means of grace, faith, renewal, the resurrection of the body, and eternal joy in heaven. Preach doctrine. You are there to teach. Don’t let anyone tell you anything else. It is by means of the heavenly doctrine that souls are saved. Sermons with no solid doctrinal content are a waste of time. Don’t try to make your sermon a means of grace. Just preach the gospel to the people who are sitting in front of you. Let God worry about what it does. Your job is to preach it and never to fail to preach it. For this is why God is calling and ordaining you to this holy office.
Brothers, it doesn’t really matter so much if all your parishioners know what you’re there to do as long as you know and you do it. When we Lutherans confess that justification by faith alone is the central article of the Christian doctrine we are not just asserting a claim in opposition to those who would emphasize something else. We are committing ourselves, as ministers of the gospel, to proclaim the blood and righteousness of Jesus, to preach against all reliance on works, to preach the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, and to do so every single time we preach anything at all. Don’t think that preaching about recreation is preaching about justification. It is not. The people need to be forgiven of their sins. The blood of Jesus is what washes away sins and it is by means of the spoken word God has told you to speak that forgiveness is given to those who need it. So don’t try to be clever or imaginative. Try instead to be crystal clear. And keep on preaching it.
Confessional Lutheran pastors are stubborn. Teach your people good hymns. Be patient. Throw out a bone now and then. But it is our duty to bring back to our Lutheran people the heritage they have lost. It’s not their fault they lost their taste for chorales and learned to prefer methodistic schmaltz. It’s the fault of lazy pastors who weren’t doing their jobs. It will take longer to bring their affections back to their Lutheran heritage. But it’s worth the time and the work. Work at it. Stay with it. It will bear fruit.
The ministry bears fruit. Preaching and teaching the confessional Lutheran doctrine you have been taught will bear fruit. You may not see it. But we live by faith, not by sight. Underneath all of the frustrations, self-doubt, criticisms, and apparent failure is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, establishing and strengthening sinners in the faith through which they are justified and made heirs of eternal life. And God has chosen you to be His servant to say the words by which He will accomplish this. Through the words you speak sinners will be justified. People on their way to hell will go to heaven. Doubt and denial will turn into faith and confession. Despair will be replaced by hope. Weakness and death will yield everlasting life. What did you do to merit the right to preach the words of everlasting life? Nothing at all. It’s by God’s grace alone. God must love you very much.